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Beware False Claims to Citizenship


Imagine that you have been living in the United States for many years as a legal permanent resident.  You have always paid your taxes, always been careful to keep your immigration documents up-to-date.  You work hard, support your family, and have never committed any crime, never been involved with any nefarious organizations.  Finally, you decide it is time to apply for citizenship.  You sign up for a citizenship workshop, and conscientiously bring all your documents with you. 

You are sure that everything is in order, and then an attorney at the workshop tells you that you not only should not apply for citizenship, you may actually be deportable.  How can that be? You have led a model life!  Now you are in danger of being sent out of your adopted country forever?

This is the reality for many immigrants who find out they may have made a false claim to U.S. citizenship.  The immigrant may have received a voter registration card in the mail, or reported for jury duty after receiving a summons.  Oftentimes, the immigrant had no intention of holding himself out to be a U.S. citizen, but rather was a victim of confusing documents or an error by a well-meaning interloper. 

For example, immigrants (especially those who struggle reading English) may be pressed to fill out a voter registration card by impatient or overzealous voter drive volunteers or staff at the motor vehicles department.  An immigrant with low literacy skills may not understand what the form is, and assume that it is a necessary part of the Driver's License Application. I have even heard of instances where voter drive volunteers at a senior center filled out registration cards for residents, "assuring" the residents that it was OK since they had been living in the country so long.

In other cases, the immigrant may sign up for a duty or benefit only available to citizens because the paperwork does not clearly state that you must be a citizen to do so.  In some jurisdictions, for example, the jury summons asks the potential juror to affirm whether he is eligible to serve, but does not ask whether he is a citizen or not.  A person who is not familiar with the requirements for jury duty may not realize that as a non-citizen he is ineligible to serve.

In some cases, such false claims can be remedied by a timely withdrawal (like requesting to be removed from the voter roll) and an explanation of the circumstances.  However,it would be best if all parties took steps to avoid the situation in the first place.  My recommendations for reducing inadvertent* false claims to U.S.Citizenship:

To immigrants:

1. Do not sign any forms that you do not understand, especially if someone else filled the form out for you. 

2. Be sure you know the purpose of every form you are filling out.  If it is not clear, then ask. 

3. Any time you are registering for any benefit or duty, ask "am I eligible if I am not a citizen?"

4. Do not let any person rush you in to signing papers you do not understand, even a government official.  Read carefully looking for any mentions of citizenship.

5. Never say that you are a citizen if you are not, even though that may seem like the easiest answer at the time.

To government agencies:

1. If citizenship is required for any purpose (like jury duty), then the papers that the public receives should state this unmistakeably.  The best practice for making sure that readers are aware of a fact is to make it a required question.  Ask "Are you a U.S. Citizen?"

2. Instruct all staff to never take it upon themselves to supply the answers to questions on any forms. The answer must come from the applicant.  If applicant does not understand a question, then try to explain it, but do not just assume the answer and fill it in.

3. Allow applicants space to complete paperwork privately and at their own pace.

*Intentionally claiming citizenship would be another problem altogether.


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